Jacinda Ardern has defended her government “mature” relationship with Beijing, saying New Zealand must be able to work together with China.
Jacinda Ardern has defended her government’s “mature” relationship with Beijing, saying New Zealand must be able to work together with China.
Speaking to the BBC about the recently signed security pact between China and the Solomon Islands, the Prime Minister said New Zealand had been aware for some time of Beijing’s “growing assertiveness” and interest in the Pacific region.
“The world is changing around us and our region is a manifestation of that,” she said.
She expressed “disappointment” at the deal, which could see the establishment of a Chinese naval base less than 2000km from Australia’s shoreline in what has been described as the greatest foreign policy failure since World War II.
“One of the reasons we’ve expressed this disappointment at the fact that we have seen now this agreement emerge and supported by both the Solomons and China has been because we look to provide for our own security needs together as a region,” she said.
“Australia and New Zealand both have heeded the call of the Solomons for support during recent disruption, and we’ve again highlighted that should any extended need exist, we are there to help and support. So that does then leave the question, what gap remains that requires such an agreement with China?”
But Ms Ardern, who has been criticised for being soft on China amid growing concerns New Zealand is the weak link in the Five Eyes alliance with the US, UK, Canada and Australia, emphasised the need to work with Beijing on areas of “natural mutual interest”.
“We have a fiercely independent foreign policy and I’m proud of the position New Zealand takes,” she said.
“China is a very important trading partner for us, but it’s also a mature relationship for us. We have always been consistent. Where there are areas that we can work together we will, but there will always be areas in which we will not necessarily agree, and where those areas arise, we are very forthright and clear on our position, and that includes human rights issues.”
Ms Ardern rejected the idea that New Zealand should join the US, UK and Australia in the AUKUS security alliance established last year to counter China.
“Our call on AUKUS is simply that yes, it is to our benefit when we have greater engagement,” she said.
“We’ve asked the US to take an interest in the economic architecture of our region, it can’t just be about defence and security arrangements. It should be about the wellbeing of the region as a whole. And you’re starting to see a response from the US on that front.”
Prime Minister Scott Morrison has been forced to defend his government’s handling of the Solomons deal.
The agreement to allow China to send military personnel to Solomon Islands was signed off on after Australia’s Pacific Minister Zed Seselja’s last-minute dash to Honiara failed to stop it from being finalised.
The Prime Minister said this week it was a strategic decision to send the more junior minister to negotiate with Solomon Islands officials instead of Foreign Minister Marise Payne, despite widespread alarm about the impending deal.
“The judgment was made not to engage in a more — at a foreign minister level engagement — to ensure that Australia’s views were communicated very clearly, and very respectfully,” he told reporters on the campaign trail.
Mr Morrison said he had “spent countless hours” in meetings with Pacific Islands leaders since he learned of the security deal, which came to light when a draft agreement was leaked on social media in March.
“In particular, New Zealand and Australia worked very carefully on these issues and one of the things we strongly agree on [is] how we handle this issue within our Pacific family,” he said.
“You know, we’re siblings, they’re not children and adults in that relationship. We treat the Pacific family as siblings and as family and our view is very much that you don’t go around stomping around telling leaders in Pacific Islands what they should and shouldn’t do.”
Mr Morrison wouldn’t be drawn on whether the security agreement meant the government’s flagship “Pacific Step-Up” engagement program had failed in its aim of strengthening Australia’s relationships in the region.
At Wednesday night’s first election debate in Brisbane, the Prime Minister accused Opposition leader Anthony Albanese of taking “China’s side” in his criticism of the deal.
Mr Albanese described it as an “outrageous slur” and said the Coalition had overseen a “Pacific stuff-up” rather than a “Pacific Step-Up”.
The Prime Minister defended his remarks on Thursday.
“When our relationship with China started to descend, and when China was putting in place trade blocks on Australian product — wine and barley and various things like that — [the Labor Party] said that was Australia’s fault, not China’s fault,” he said.
“When I called out China for being where the pandemic started, and said there had to be an independent investigation into the origins of Covid, apparently this was the wrong thing for us to do. So when I look at that record, on each occasion, have they backed the Australian government in standing up for Australia? Or have they run the talking points, have they run the lines of those who are seeking to criticise Australia for the important decisions that we’ve taken in our national interest?”
— with NCA NewsWire